USC was swept in the Northwest, while the Bruins are coming off a very tough loss to Washington last Saturday.
When UCLA defeated the Trojans last month, 66-45, at Pauley Pavilion, the Bruins held the lead from the get-go and eventually led by 30 in what was probably the biggest blow-out win for the Bruins this season. Since that game both teams have changed; UCLA for the better and USC for the worse. As the Bruins are healthier and the Trojans are more banged up than a month ago, the question then becomes how the Bruins will respond to their first conference road loss (and first poor performance in a couple of weeks) of the season.
Rehashing the statistics and nuances of the Bruin loss in Seattle last weekend seems to be moot. Opinions abound about substitution patterns, timeouts and free throws, just to name a few things. What can probably be agreed upon is the general sense that the Bruins lost a game that they should have. or at least could have, won, and did so despite playing one of their poorer offensive games of the season. So what does that mean for Sunday, specifically, and in general, for the rest of the season?
USC comes into the game having lost their past three games. More importantly, the Trojans have lost sophomore guard Gabriel Pruitt, (6'4" 170 lbs.) indefinitely because of a left knee injury he suffered two weeks ago. USC is a team that had only four returning scholarship players this year, and not only was Pruitt one of them, he may have been the best as he was leading the team in minutes played and three-pointers made, and was second in scoring. His loss was plainly felt this past weekend as Washington and WSU swept the Trojans. The game in Pullman should be particularly disturbing to Trojan fans as the Cougars were able to score more in the 2nd half (40) than they were in the entire game against the Bruins (30).
To try and combat Pruitt's loss, Coach Tim Floyd has experimented with two different starting line-ups, going slightly bigger across the board against the Cougars than against the Huskies. The guess is that the Trojans will start their best and quickest line-up against the Bruins, which should be the same as the line-up they went with against Washington.
The Trojans will run almost all of their offense now through sophomore wing Nick Young (6'6" 195 lbs.). Young is the team's leading scorer and rebounder, plays the most minutes outside of Pruitt and is clearly among the first two or three options that USC has on offense. He was pretty well shut down in Pauley a month ago and that was before the return of Cedric Bozeman. With Pruitt now out, Young can expect to get a heavy dose of Bozeman, Arron Afflalo, Mike Roll (who can now be considered a pretty good defender), and even Luc Mbah a Moute. The point is that Coach Ben Howland will be able to throw numerous bodies at Young while keeping each Bruin fresh.
If there is a second option for the Trojans, then it will probably be junior guard Lodrick Stewart (6'4" 210 lbs.). Stewart can shoot well (41% beyond the arc) and drive, but he has apparently not played well recently and there is a rumor that he may be in Coach Floyd's doghouse. When on, Stewart can be a very effective scorer, but when he's off, Stewart almost disappears. He, too, was shut down by the Bruins last moth, and he can expect Afflalo to be in his grill most of the game. Jordan Farmar may also get some minutes on Stewart and Farmar's defense has taken a big step forward the past three weeks.
The Trojans should start freshman Ryan Francis (5'11" 170 lbs.), a quick, penetrating guard who has done pretty well this season. When he faced the Bruins the first time around, he was playing on a bum leg and had a very poor game. And while he's healthy now, he certainly isn't playing as well as he has earlier in the season. He leads the team in assists, but also clearly leads the team in turnovers, which have been increasing the past few games. The difference between Francis and Darren Collison is that Francis is expected to be the one point that plays the most minutes. That's a lot of pressure for a freshman. And it appears to have taken its toll. The key with Francis is keeping him in front of you defensively since he has been simply atrocious from behind the arc (21%).
In the post, the Trojans should go with junior Abdoulaye Ndaiye (6'11" 230 lbs.). Ndaiye is a big shot blocker and that's about it. Bruin fans will recall that he picked up his second foul early in the first match-up and by the time he came back in the Bruins were already coasting. Ndaiye does alter shots and he is long, so the Bruins should expect to have their shots altered and some thrown back at them during the course of the game. But Ndaiye is a walking foul so Ryan Hollins and Alfred Aboya should be ready to shoot many free throws.
After those four it's anybody's guess as to who will start. Floyd has gone with freshman Sead Odzic (6'3" 180 lbs.), a 3-point shooting specialist, or senior Dwayne Shackelford (5'10" 185 lbs.), a quick guard like Francis, who's best game this season was the first meeting between the Trojans and the Bruins. Or Floyd may go with senior Greg Gaudino (6'6" 195 lbs.) just to inject size, as he did at Wazzu. But it really doesn't matter. This is a game where the Bruins should overwhelm their opponent, much like they did to Washington State. But the question is whether they will or not.
Losses like the one in Seattle can be tough to overcome for a young team. The only precedence that we have for how the Bruins will respond is how they have handled adversity earlier in the season. UCLA has come back from both defeats and poor performances with very good efforts in their following games. I think we can expect the same here. The Bruins are in L.A., against a rival playing a game after a tough loss (when the Bruins typically "show up") and have had to stew on it for a week. The team we see on Sunday night is the team that we should expect to see in the second game of the NCAA tournament (if the Bruins get that far), after the Bruins have gotten the jitters out in the first game. But there'll be more on that in a couple of weeks.
In a general sense, the USC game should give the Bruins and their fans a better idea of how the season will finish. I'm not talking about wins and losses, but rather execution on both ends of the court. I think we can safely assume that the Bruins will be bringing a good to great effort to every game. Now comes time for this young team to force its will on its opponents through execution. The Bruins didn't have it last Saturday, but going into this home stretch it's critical they show the necessary execution of a championship team on Sunday, especially if they want to win the PAC-10 title. The Bruins hold a precarious ½ game lead over Cal and still have to travel to the Bay Area in two weeks. Well, the Bruins lost and now need to hypothetically win out to ensure a PAC-10 title. Can they handle that pressure? Will they be able to look at the last 5 games "one at a time"? There are a couple of other "biggest game of the year"s coming, but this week is not one of them. Or at least it shouldn't be. The Bruins should get back on the winning track pretty easily this Sunday. With USC's confidence down and with arguably their best player out, the Trojans are a shell of the team that beat North Carolina earlier this season. As a side note, the Trojans are a team I'd like to see the Bruins avoid in the PAC-10 tourney. They should get Pruitt back by then and have center RouSean Cromwell, their best post player, back from injury as early as next week. They will be a much better and deeper team then. But for now, they aren't.